Despite funding cutbacks, Institute for Astronomy making strides


HILO — The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy is currently working to beef up faculty and equipment at its Hilo facility, despite cutbacks in some funding sources.

The Manoa-based institute manages the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island, as well as the Haleakala Observatories on Maui. In early 2001, the IfA completed an $11 million, 35,000-square-foot, split-level building Hilo base facility.

The plan, said IfA Director Guenther Hasinger, was to fill the facility with staff, faculty and equipment and make it an “instrumentation center of excellence,” to build and test state-of-the art equipment used by astronomers.

But then organizers began running into budgetary roadblocks.

“They were hoping to get more money from the (Legislature) to build up the Hilo complex,” he said.

Over the years, the institute has added equipment and people piecemeal as funding became available, Hasinger said. Faculty members are expected help keep the center going by snagging grants to fund projects.

Currently, the facility has five faculty members and about 80 employees. By comparison, the IfA’s Manoa facility has 30 faculty members and 200 employees, and its Maui facility hosts three faculty and 40 staffers.

The building itself features a bevy of machine shops and laboratories for the development and maintenance of scientific instruments and telescopes, a library, an auditorium and remote telescope operation rooms connected via fiber optic cable to the observatories atop Mauna Kea.

It all serves to keep the Big Island at the forefront of groundbreaking astronomy.

Hasinger said assets such as the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope and the Keck telescopes, which he said are “the most powerful telescopes in the world,” give Hilo important world-leading niches.

But the IfA can’t function without top people.

“In Hilo right now, we’re hiring a new faculty member. We have an ad out, and we hope by April we will have a new person,” Hasinger said. “We already have one adaptive optics specialist, and we’ll need another.”

Adaptive optics is a relatively new technology that has helped provide clearer pictures of space. One of the biggest problems scientists face when looking through telescopes is seeing through the Earth’s atmosphere, Hasinger said. Images from distant objects appear blurry after traveling through the turbulent air around our planet. Ideally, the best images come from space, where there is no atmosphere to interfere. Such is the purpose of programs like the Hubble Space Telescope. But, such options are rare and very expensive.

Ground-based alternatives seek to place telescopes as high as possible, which is what makes Mauna Kea a great location. But even at the summit, there is still much atmosphere to contend with. Adaptive optics allow a telescope’s mirror to adapt to rapid fluctuations in light waves to provide a steadier picture, and Hilo’s IfA is a world leader in building such instrumentation, said Associate Director Klaus Hodapp. And the hope is to keep that status growing.

Hodapp said that the IfA has received funding from various sources over the past decade, with big projects like the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), which would be used to spot threats from asteroids and comets.”

“Originally, funding was planned in the public domain for the past decade. That was earmark funding that was put into the defense budget and came to us as funding from the Air Force. But that funding stream has now been disrupted,” he said.

With the cutbacks, the Pan-STARRS project, which originally called for a system of two telescopes on Maui and two on the Big Island, will likely now be limited to the one telescope now in operation on Maui, and a second Maui telescope that is being built, Hodapp said.

In the new budgetary environment, the IfA has worked to find ways to keep its older equipment up to date by adding high-tech instruments that provide better and better data for scientists to continue making advances.

“Obviously, modern telescopes work better than old telescopes,” he said, “but we’re working to bring our equipment back up to competitive scientific capabilities. We’re hiring additional faculty members in certain technologies, and concentrating on certain aspects.”

In a Thursday tour of the Hilo facility, Hodapp showed off some of the instruments currently in development in the IfA’s labs. Among them were high-definition cameras and cryostat containers, which are designed to cool infrared detectors to temperatures near absolute zero, preventing them from picking up extraneous heat signatures that might throw off their readings of infrared from distant stars and other heavenly bodies.

Some of the instruments are being fabricated and tested for other programs at various institutions around the world.

“We can build things here that they can’t,” Hodapp said. “And we’re happy to do it. It keeps money flowing in, and it keeps our skills up.”

For more information on the Institute for Astronomy, visit ifa.hawaii.edu/.